Friday, March 11, 2016

Movie Review: "10 Cloverfield Lane" (2016)

© Paramount Pictures

In what can only described as an "accidental sequel," one connected to Matt Reeves' brilliant 2008 found-footage monster film, Cloverfield, by only the merest of whispers, Dan Trachtenberg and superstar Bad Robot producer, J.J. Abrams, have delivered a masterful psychological thriller in 10 Cloverfield Lane. It's a project that may have been better off with no connection to its popular predecessor, if only to bottle the mysteries that lie beneath; or rather, outside. Originally a 'spec script' floating around Hollywood under the title The Cellar, writer Damien Chazelle scooped up the claustrophobic mind-meld and eventually morphed it into the loose Cloverfield universe feature hitting theaters this weekend. What we get is a superbly-directed amalgamation of Saw meets Room... with an ending you will absolutely see coming.

While escaping the city and the personal trials of life, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) makes her way through the Louisiana countryside when she's run off the road, flipping her car and losing consciousness. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a sealed, concrete bunker deep underground owned by Howard (John Goodman), a conspiracy theorist and doomsday prepper who claims to have saved her from not only the car wreck, but a devastating attack that has killed the entire population and left the outside world uninhabitable. More than a little skeptical and determined to find a way to escape, Michelle befriends their only other bunker-mate, the simple and trusting Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), to help her uncover the truth about Howard... and find out what's really happening on the surface.

This movie should never have been linked, in any way shape or form, to Cloverfield, much as I'm desperate for a true sequel. The story purposefully separates us from any notion about what is really out there, an aspect of the film's tension that is vital to the effectiveness of the story. But we do know, because we saw the original (if you haven't, you'd probably really enjoy this movie). We walk into the theater with our own preconceptions, completely overriding the external mystery that Michelle is clamoring to uncover. Now, it would be hugely detrimental if that were the only mystery there was to unearth. The locked-room/confined brilliance of the rest of the film requires nothing from the events occurring outside; it's all about the delusional truths swirling around Howard inside his apocalypse den.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the fighter we all hope we'd be in a situation like this. A captive guilted into giving thanks to the man who holds the keys to the lock—regardless of how justified you come to believe he may be—would be enough to gut the best of us and leave us grateful for having a couple VHS options to choose from. But Michelle never loses her cool; she's always working through the problem right in front of her, and unlike most heroines who inexplicably take a lifetime to make the only decision that could save their life, she never hesitates. She takes risks, a lot of them, and the danger is palpable—even when we're unsure where the real danger lies. Winstead is a skilled performer and never lets Michelle devolve into frantic freak-outs that would give the whole game away. It's refreshing to root for someone who not only deserves your respect—she earns it.

Then there's John Goodman. Goodness me, John Goodman. His portrayal of an odd-duck doomsday prepper so unhinged—swinging between generous caregiver, domineering prison guard, and wheezing psychopath in the span of one spaghetti dinner—is the thing of legends. There's a dark and complicated narrative happening in the twisty-parts of his mind that we're never quite privy to, which makes every one of his reactions throughout the film hugely unpredictable. Together, Winstead and Goodman never allow their characters to be at ease with one another; for Michelle, this is intentional. Trust is fickle, but for Howard, experience has not been kind, and try as he might, the loose screws just won't secure in place long enough so he can let his guard down.

The best compliment to the intensity of the primary storyline is the score by Bear McCreary. Like a long, never-ending violin note, threatening never to break unless the tension does, the music is a combination of lingering orchestral interludes and jarring crashes that keep us in a constant state of unease. Interspersed with jukebox favorites that make happy and light what is truly dark and terrifying, McCreary's moody creation steals the show. The reveals are more tangible and the suspicions are more urgent, and it's all thanks to him and those sharp string stings (try saying that 5 times fast).

While I'm attempting to avoid spoilers as best I can, it's a sad truth that this rock-solid concept suffers from an underwhelming and disassociated ending. Trachtenberg and Abrams' vision for an expansion of this world was not only unnecessary, it wound up actually hurting the film. Thankfully, though, up until that point, there is nary a falter; from the acting to the direction to the editing, putting aside the inevitability of the final moments would be in the best interest of every viewer so that you can see how exceptionally the rest comes together. Believe me, you'll have a far better time if you forget that they dared to call this Cloverfield.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

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